Just Back: Slovenia, Europe’s Best-Kept Secret

The medieval town of Piran on the Adriatic coast is rich in history and Venetian architecture. A catamaran to Venice is a popular day trip.

After a recent private fam with Luxury Slovenia DMC, I can honestly say it’s Europe’s best-kept secret. Over five action-packed days, my colleague Stephen Scott and I savored the wine country, explored caves and castles, discovered medieval port towns, strolled along the Riviera, and glided over some of the most beautiful Alpine lakes ever. We were also impressed with the solid value for money (Euro) and English-speaking locals.

First, the basics. Slovenia is sandwiched between Italy and Croatia along the southern Adriatic Coast. To the north and northeast, it shares the Alps with Austria and Hungary.

Flying into Venice is highly advised, since the capital, Ljubljana, is only an hour’s drive. Our flight connected via Paris. The first thing we noticed walking out of Jože Pučnik Airport was how fresh the air smelled. “Visitors always say that,” our host Matej Knific told us, as he greeted us with a giant bouquet of peonies and roses. Knific and his partner, Mattej Valencic, whisked us into our well-stocked (and Wi-Fi connected) Mercedes-Benz Metris and we were off. 

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First stop was the Brda wine country, home to Slovenia’s top wine, olive oil and fruit producers. The region borders some of Italy’s best wine country. After a 45-minute drive, including five minutes over the Italian border, we arrived at the Hotel Gredič, a 400-year-old country castle converted into a hip boutique hotel with an outdoor pool. Each of the seven individually designed rooms features a Bang & Olufsen sound system. We toasted our arrival in the garden with a bottle of local champagne and salmon tartare canapés. 

Enjoying a private champagne picnic at Lipica Stud Farm, home of world famous Lipizzaner stallions. From left, Mattej Valencic, Sekita Ekrek and Stephen Scott of Travel Hub 365 and Matej Knific

These first sips just whet our appetite for more of Slovenia’s rich wine heritage. Surrounded by rolling vineyards and Cypress trees, we spent a sunny afternoon sampling full-bodied reds and rebula, the region’s excellent white wine. Organic micro-wineries are the norm here. Our farm-to-table lunch of risotto, tender roast pork and ricotta dumplings was prepared and served by one of the winery’s owners. Even the salad leaves were just picked that morning. 

Wine and food are taken seriously here. It is said there is a wine cellar for every 70 Slovenians. But because the country is so small, production is limited. Gastronomy, too, is thriving with modern interpretations of traditional Mediterranean fare, and passion for local, seasonal cooking. Fresh seafood, grilled meats and pasta are particular standouts.

That evening, after a tasty seafood dinner at the hotel, our hosts led us into the “champagne temple.” The dramatic circular cellar was bathed in candlelight and filled with a dazzling display of desserts and bubbly. Definitely a setting for special occasions. 

The next morning, we set off for horse country. The Lipica Stud Farm is home to the world-famous, prancing Lipizzaner horses. The farm had just introduced private tours and we were one of the first to experience it. As we arrived, two horse-drawn carriages trotted toward us. They were ours to tour the 750 acres of green pasture, home to 300 white purebreds. The visit included a private champagne picnic, behind-the-scenes access to newborn foals, and a photo op with Queen Elizabeth’s private stallion. 

Lake Bled is Slovenia’s most Instagramable destination. Ring the church bell in the center of the lake for good luck.

In the afternoon, we drove an hour to Portorož and considered Slovenia’s Riviera. We checked in to the five-star Kempinski Palace Portoroz Istria, the country’s most famous hotel. From here, Venice is a popular day trip by catamaran or car. 

As history buffs, we skipped the casinos of Portorož and opted for an afternoon in nearby Piran. This medieval port town along the Riviera oozes charm, with cobblestone streets and a colorful main square. Our private guide explained that both Italian and Slovenian are officially spoken here as the town was once under Venetian rule. We climbed up the town’s peak, where old castle ruins overlook the Adriatic Sea. To our left, we saw Croatia’s jutting coastline. Italy’s shores were to the right.

Dinner was a decadent four-course experience in Sophia, the Kempinski’s fine-dining restaurant, where elegant interiors complimented the creative Mediterranean fare. The hotel dates back to 1910 and has a modern (77 rooms) and classic wing (104 rooms). We appreciated the high ceilings and seafront balconies along the classic section.

The next day, our guide, Peter, picked us up early for a day of exploring castles and caves. Postojna Cave is one of the world’s largest and most famous caves. It’s also Slovenia’s greatest tourist attraction. Our private tour guide met us at the entrance, where he explained that it was discovered in 1818. A short electric-train ride took us deep underground to begin our walking tour through a mile-long gallery of magnificent stalactites and stalagmites. 

Goriska Brda Wine Region produces the country’s best wine. Along the Italian-Slovenian border, it is nicknamed the ‘Tuscany of Slovenia.’ 

The nearby Predjama Castle is another national treasure, located in an idyllic village. Situated high on a vertical cliffside, the Renaissance fortress was built entirely into a cave. Its unusual design, along with mysterious tunnels, has made it a popular site for filming.

One of the big selling points of this destination is the capital city’s proximity to so many diverse cultural and historic treasures. Plus, the drives are so scenic; modern roadways often wind through mountain forests and quaint towns. We made our way back from the coast to Llubljana in time for an afternoon walking tour of the city.

Ljubljana is a picturesque capital with a relaxed vibe. The Ljubljana Castle sits high on a hill to watch over the city. The charming Old Town is easily walkable with a series of foot bridges that connect the historic, medieval side with the contemporary city. We stayed at Hotel Cubo, a stylish boutique property just three blocks away from the Old Town (ask for a room with a view of the castle). The nearby Hotel InterContinental Ljubljana opened in August 2017 to meet the demand for luxury accommodations. Rooftop views of this hotel are spectacular.

Don’t miss dinner at JB Restaurant, named one of the Top 100 World’s Best Restaurants, and well worth the award.

Predjama Castle was built in the mouth of a towering cave more than 800 years ago.

Two of the country’s most famous lakes are an hour north of the city in the Julian Alps. Lake Bohinj is the largest natural lake, a peaceful oasis surrounded by pine forests and nearby Vogel ski resort. Lake Bled is the most photographed site in the country. A tiny island sits at its center and is only accessible by pletna, a handmade row boat. We had a blast taking in the views from the water.

We spent our final night at Hotel Grad Otočec, just 40 minutes outside of the capital. This 13th-century castle has been converted into a stunning Relais & Châteaux property with fine dining. Right out of a fairytale, it sits on a secluded river island. The experience pretty much summed up the trip: Magical.

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